Following several local drownings this summer, area first responders collaborated to film a safety video at the Holland area’s marque waterfront on the morning of Nov. 7. The re-enactment put up the crimson warning of dangerous swimming conditions for the video — in spite of the light breeze and flat lake.
“It’s really important that we keep reminding kids of the power of the lake,” said Diane Simmons, an instructor at the Holland Aquatic Center.
Emergency vehicles with lights flashing rolled into the beach’s parking lot just after 10 a.m. Soon, several search boats floated just offshore, three men dressed in cold-water gear waded through the shallows and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter strafed the water.
So real did the scene appear that groups of people were arriving at the beach inquiring into the “emergency.” But the paramedics running a gurney down the paved path and the helicopter’s dramatic hover over an Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department boat was all for the benefit of the camera — and the safety of local teens, who the video project is specifically targeting.
In Ottawa County alone, five people lost their lives on Lake Michigan this past summer, according to data from the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which has been tracking drownings since 2010. In the Holland area, three teenagers perished this year; there have been 87 drownings in the Great Lakes in 2016.
The video will be shown to the aquatics center’s older students, according to that institution’s executive director, Jack Huisingh. It’s also hoped that local middle and high school students will see the video and learn its primary lesson: Don’t swim when the red flag is out.
Holland State Park staff put out three different flags as indicators of current swimming conditions. Green flags mean waves of 0-2 feet; yellow means waves of 2-4 feet and the possibility of a current. Red flags, meanwhile, indicate one of three things: that the water is 52 degrees or less; that there is strong current off the beach; or that waves are higher than 4 feet.
The red flag is a “strong recommendation” not to swim, according to Sean Mulligan, unit supervisor of Holland State Park. The Michigan state parks system doesn’t employ lifeguards, nor does it enforce who can swim at its beaches and when.
“But it’s not a good idea to go out when the flag is red,” Mulligan said.
The local safety video employed actors to create a scene in which a group of teens decide to ignore the red flag’s warning and swim anyway.
More than a half-dozen agencies combined their resources for the video, including the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department, AMR Ambulance, several local fire departments and Holland State Park. The video was shot by City of Holland staff.
“We want people to enjoy the water. It’s beautiful,” said Sgt. Cal Keuning, who heads the sheriff’s office dive team. “But you have to respect it.”